Two West African immigrants rap with purpose.
Diallo Sanoussy Gallice Jr., a Guinean-American rapper, dresses sharp and speaks carefully. He pauses after questions, looks you in the eye, and has perfect posture. Strolling in Midtown some weeks ago, he rocked a gigantic Russian-style hat, a red paisley dress shirt, and a skinny black neck-tie. Despite frequently looking svelte, Gallice insists he isn’t very fashion conscious.
“One thing I want to tell you about the way I dress—I don’t pay attention at all. It’s just a blessing. I know where I’m from, I know how I grew up,” he said, elaborating that at times in his Guinean youth, he was so embarrassed of his clothing he wouldn’t leave home. With this explanation and his habitual dapperness, it seems more likely that rather than putting minimal thought into his wares, he puts extra care into looking good.
In conversation and in concert though, Gallice Jr. would rather talk about social issues than his clothes.
Through his shows in New York City, his activism, his music and his speeches that are broadcast on YouTube, Gallice Jr. is part of a tradition and a region where, even though multiple burgeoning democracies have problems, social and government criticism through rap are robust.
Bako, whose real name is Sékou Tangara, carries himself with a demeanor and style that resembles popular American M.C.s. At a breakfast-and-burger joint in Harlem, he slouched under a flat-brimmed Yankees cap that he cocked to the side like Jay-Z. He speaks with a confident nonchalance, but he gets earnest when he talks politics. Occasionally, he will flash a wry smile at his own observations.
Both Bako and Gallice Jr. are 30, and they were brought up on “conscious” American and African rappers from the nineties —from 2Pac and Nas to Senegalese stars MC Solaar and Positive Black Soul. As such, they pride themselves on the messages in their rhymes.
“I want to tell people my rap is a message, always. It’s a message with music, always,” Bako said.
Gallice is even more emphatic—he sees his music as a gift and a calling from God.
“We have more chance to impact somebody’s life than anyone else,” he said.
In both Guinea and Mali, rap plays a prominent—though not exclusive—role in criticizing corrupt government officials and social ills.
“These societies have free and vibrant press, lively call-in talk radio, and young multiparty democracies, for all their woes ,” Drew Hinshaw, the Wall Street Journal’s West African correspondent, said in an email. Hinshaw has lived in the region since 2008, and has written about its rap music for Pitchfork, The Village Voice and other outlets. “The venues [for social and political criticism] exist, and rap is one of them.”
New York’s West African rappers produce songs that speak to their listeners in the city’s diaspora. At a concert with Gallice Jr. and DTM, another Guinean rapper with a social message, the rappers’ fans said that their lives and concerns are represented in the performers’ lyrics.
“Sometimes, being here, you feel lonely,” Alpha Diallo, a 24-year-old Guinean supermarket manager, said of the African immigrant experience in New York. “But when you listen to your country’s music, you feel like you back home. When I listen to [DTM], everything in my mind is African.”
Gallice Jr.’s life resonates with the youth he reaches through the Guinean Youth Alliance, Promo Guinée and other Guinean social groups in New York and Bayonne, N.J., where he went to high school after coming to America more than a decade ago.
As a kid in Conakry, Guinea, the West African capital where he was born, Gallice led a life of bad behavior. By the time he was 10, he was skipping school, smoking and cursing people out with a group of men in their late-20s.
“At that age, maybe I was younger, but I was doing stuff that only grown people do,” he said. “At that age, you believe them. They tell you do this, you do it.”
When Gallice was 10, this misbehavior got bad enough that his family decided to move him from his grandparents’ home to his aunts’, which was in a better part of Conakry. Gallice’s first language was Susu, an ethnic dialect, but his aunt forbade him from speaking it in the house so he could communicate with his francophone cousins, and so he would do better in school.
To learn French, he turned to rap.
“Every time MC Solaar came out with an album, I had to memorize it. My French wasn’t that good, so I would ask my cousins to help me. I used to struggle to write down the lyrics,” he said.
In Mali, Bako was born into better circumstances—his father is Muhamed Ouzouna Maiga, the number two Malian diplomat at the country’s consulate in Washington, D.C. As a teen, he became inspired by political rappers Positive Black Soul and Daara J. His group Tata Pound has been banned from Malian television for the last five years, for speaking out about the government. The group’s rappers have songs about corruption, the rebellion in the north of the country and about the difficulty of making it in America.
But in recent years, he has rapped less, because he says he has seen the West African rap world become more materialistic.
“Rap in West Africa is growing now. But right now, I think it is growing in the wrong direction,” he said. “People only want to party. If you telling the truth now, no one wants to listen to you.”
Bako’s laments have truth to them, but in another email, Hinshaw said that although West African “money rap” is growing, especially in Ghana and Nigeria, it has by no means become ubiquitous.
“There is definitely a rising materialism in places like Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana and Nigeria and maybe Mali and Guinea to a lesser degree,” Hinshaw wrote. “But is West African pop all hedonism? Not by a longshot.”
Nevertheless, both Bako and Gallice Jr. say that not much of the new rap they encounter has a message anymore, in West Africa or New York. And they see it as their mission to speak out. Beyond hip-hop, both have recorded speeches on YouTube about social and political issues. These online videos have received thousands of views. One of Bako’s denounced the March coup d’etat in Mali, and one of Gallice Jr.’s calls for justice in the death of Mohamed Bah, an emotionally disturbed Guinean immigrant who was shot and killed by New York City police officers after he stabbed two of them in a September confrontation.
Both Bako and Gallice Jr. see YouTube as another way that they can promote positive change in their home countries as their peers continue to make music that both see as too superficial. Though they live an ocean away, both believe that through YouTube and through rap, they will make a difference.
“Today, I am actually one of the guys out there who is telling people what music is really about,” Gallice Jr. said. Though it may be a boast, he cited a passage from the Qu’ran that inspires him. “God is telling me, ‘I’m the one who gave you all these talents.’ And I know I am here for a purpose. My purpose here is to send a message.”